BLIND TASTINGS between American and French wines have done a lot to establish the reputation of the former, and to temper -- but never eradicate -- French arrogance about the superiority of its culture, vinous or otherwise. Half a dozen such tastings during the last decade proved that even Frenchmen are capable of rating our cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir over their own bordeaux and burgundies, although they are not happy when the bottles are pulled out of the bags. Most French vignicenti today still look down their Gallic noses at American wine, but the posture is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
One producer of California wine who enjoys such taste- offs, and has generally fared well in them, is William Hill, who began to turn out cabernets and chardonnays with great character in the late '70s. Made from grapes grown in rocky soils in the cooler southern end of the Napa valley, the cabs possessed the unique power of mountain-grown grapes. William Hill has since bought several hundred acres on Atlas
Mountain to continue this tradition
on a larger scale.
Over the last couple of years William Hill has held blind tastings on
the West Coast that pitted his cabernets against first-growth bordeaux.
The Hill wines won in several categories and prompted the French and
some East Coast enophiles to complain of "California palates." So this
spring Hill organized a tasting in Washington for European palates.
Hill representatives sent out 4,000 invitations using mailing lists from East Coast wine shops. Through a lottery system 150 people were chosen to come to the Four Seasons and taste, blind, three vintages of William Hill cabernets along with the same vintages of Ch.ateaux Latour, Margaux, Mouton and Haut-Brion. That is heady competition.
The wines were tasted in three flights arranged according to vintage, which were '79, '80 and '81. There were four wines in each flight, one of them a William Hill. Tasters were asked to rate the wines in each flight with first place going to "the wine you would most like to take home with you tonight," not necessarily the most drinkable, but the best. Accountants on the spot tabulated the results.
The winner of the first flight, the '79s, was William Hill, with the best single score of the evening. Mouton came in second, Margaux third and Latour fourth. For William Hill, 1979 was a good year, but it was also a very good year for the wines of Bordeaux. Still, more than one taster picked the '79 William Hill as the best of all 12 cabs.
The William Hill came in last in the other two flights, the '81s and the '80s. The latter vintage from France is much more approachable than the California '80s, and the '81 bordeaux are particularly concentrated. Even with those cavils, the point spread among all the wines in the second and third flights was very close indeed. It proved that California cabernet from any vintage impresses even "European" palates, and that Napa grapes have an impressive future.
Another point worth consideration is price. Among the '79s, Mouton costs $40 a bottle, Margaux costs $50 and Latour costs $50. The '79 William Hill was $16.50 a bottle. It would cost about $25 today, if you could find it.